South Africa celebrates mental health awareness in October with the intention to raise awareness about mental health issues and to fight stigma and marginalisation that is often associated with mental illness.
Mental illness can be defined as a physical illness of the brain that causes disturbances in thinking, behaviour, energy or emotion that makes it difficult to cope with the ordinary demands of life. On the other hand, the World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”.
According to Jean Holthaus of Pine Crest Christian Mental Health Services in Michigan, USA, there are complicated causes of these conditions which can include genetics, brain chemistry, brain structure, experiencing trauma and/or having another medical condition, like heart disease. The cluster of mental disorders include depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other psychoses, dementia, and developmental disorders including autism. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group estimates that one in three people in South Africa will or do suffer from mental illness at some stage in their lifetime; at the same time, only one in 10 people suffering from mental illness has access to mental health care.
Included under the state of being mentally unwell, according to professional bodies like the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, is feeling anxious, feeling lonely and being worried and/or depressed. As such, it is not surprising that the current socio-economic environment created by the COVID-19 pandemic, high rates of unemployment, strained relationships, rising levels of gender-based violence and high levels of crime, trigger or exacerbate mental illness. These adverse socio-economic disruptions have a devastating impact on many young people’s lives and livelihoods, thereby putting their mental wellness at risk.
To a layperson, being mentally unwell means being mad or ‘having lost it.’ This creates an unnecessary stigma that prevents the affected from seeking help. There are many other common misconceptions, cultural and religious amongst them, that have the same effect on individuals and cause them to choose to suffer in silence and in loneliness. Statements like “be a man, men don’t crumble” or “have faith, God will never fail you,” make people reluctant to be open about the psychological or emotional problems they are experiencing. Those who have passed a tipping point don’t benefit from these well-meaning statements.
Steven Aitchison says: “Emotional pain is not something that should be hidden away and never spoken about. There is truth in your pain, there is growth in your pain, but only if it’s first brought out into the open.” Creating a safe platform or space where open conversations can take place soon makes people realise that their unique challenges are not so unique after all. When people share their stories and the hardships they have been through, all the participants get stronger and wiser.
MANCOSA, being a distance education institution, attaches a lot of importance to the student voice. Virtual platforms, student surveys and dedicated academic and support staff listen to this voice to ensure that no student is left behind. This helps to resolve issues that may cause consternation that may affect the mental wellness of affected students. Many families who have children or family members studying at higher education institutions have, inevitably, sacrificed quite a bit of their limited resources to be able to support them. Any event or unfavourable development that threatens the progress of a family member who is a student, may easily heighten the levels of anxiety, thereby putting the state of their mental health at risk. The “student success” strategic goal pursued by MANCOSA demands that students’ life challenges are effectively addressed by the deployment of qualified psychology specialists who can deal with students on a one-to-one basis. Staff are also not immune from emotional pressures and the institution makes professionals available to assist them when needed.
The high level of unemployment in the country becomes a source of anxiety and depression, especially to unemployed graduates and their families. MANCOSA has prioritised the tackling of this challenge by developing an innovative employability programme that gives MANCOSA graduates an added advantage in the job and entrepreneurship stakes.
In the final analysis, mental health challenges are a societal problem, and like all such problems, they need to be tackled by many stakeholders, bringing in a variety of resources, skills and expertise. The safe conversational spaces that we create should remind all of us that our struggles do not define us but provide us an opportunity to create really inclusive and supportive communities.
By Professor Magnate Ntombela
MANCOSA, a leading provider of management programmes through supported distance learning in Southern Africa, is renowned for its MBA offering, which is ranked among the 10 of the best MBAs in Africa. A member of Honoris United Universities – the first Pan-African private higher education network focused on nurturing the next generation of African leaders and professionals. MANCOSA serves as an innovation hub for undergraduate and postgraduate management, offering 50 accredited programmes. A selection of Executive Education Short Learning Programmes is also offered to meet the requirements of professionals in both the private and public sectors. See: www.mancosa.co.za
For queries or additional information call 031 300 7200, email [email protected] or visit https://www.mancosa.co.za/.
About Honoris United Universities
Honoris United Universities is the first and largest Pan-African private higher education network committed to educating the next generation of African leaders and professionals able to impact regionally in a globalised world. Collaborative intelligence, cultural agility and mobile mind-sets and skills are at the heart of Honoris’ vision of higher education. Honoris United Universities joins the expertise of its member institutions to develop world-class African Human capital that is competitive in today’s fast-paced, demanding and increasingly digitised labour and start-up markets.
Honoris United Universities gathers a community of 57,000 students on 70 campuses, learning centres and via on-line, in 10 countries and 32 cities. The network counts 14 institutions: multidisciplinary universities, specialised schools, technical and vocational institutes, contact, distance, and online institutions. Students have an opportunity to experience exclusive partnerships and exchange programs in more than 85 universities across Europe and the United States. Over 300 degrees are offered in Health Sciences, Engineering, IT, Business, Law, Architecture, Creative Arts and Design, Media, Political Science and Education.
Honoris United Universities. Education for Impact. www.honoris.net